Connoisseurs of fine fiction had a shock in January when the New Yorker published a short story in which all the characters were ants. Now the greatly anticipated source of that excerpt has appeared as a full-length novel, with humans as characters too.
Mostly the book follows Raphael Semmes Cody, who grows up in the fictional Nokobee County, a place inspired by real longleaf pine forests near Mobile, Ala. Wilson, a renowned Harvard ant expert and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, roamed those parts as a boy, and his deft details render the setting so vivid that the pine ecosystem becomes a character in its own right. The novel turns on the clash between a love for the last remnants of the South’s once-great forests and the region’s long-sought economic development.
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When the tale digs into the ants’ world, Wilson highlights the same themes of conflict and environmental challenge. He speculates about how ants view humans, but otherwise research-based reality provides drama enough — with ant tournaments, cemetery protocols and extreme soldiering. These ants don’t sport cutesy names or break laws of biology by turning up as male workers. But, as Wilson reveals in the acknowledgments, the insect characters are a composite, allowing him to describe behaviors of several real species as a rich counterpoint to human society.
The novel quickly turns back to tales of humans, but the sections dovetail in tone. Wilson approaches humans too with a naturalist’s eye, elucidating the behavior of species he knows well, including Homo alabamensis and H. harvardii. And in the end, the humans do match the ants for drama.
W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, 378 p., $24.95.
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